Big Gains from Small Funds: Experiences from WaterAid Ethiopia’s 20-Town Capacity Development Programme

by | Aug 1, 2017

Ethiopia has steadily increased the proportion of urban residents with access to improved water in recent years. This is particularly impressive considering the rapid population growth and high rate of rural-urban migration taking place in the country. However, despite these laudable achievements, there are still widespread challenges affecting the sustainable delivery of WASH services in Ethiopia’s towns. With over 980 towns across the country, government units mandated to support the individual town water utilities are often overstretched. The utilities have weak internal systems and processes, with inefficiencies in their operations undermining their ability to be financially sustainable, or to provide an adequate quality service to their customers. An example of such inefficiency of management is that in 2015 the sector average for utility non-revenue water stood at 39%. In non-technical terms, more than a third of the already meagre drinkable water that the utilities produce is lost before it gets to their customers.

The problems persist despite the government’s best intentions because capacity in the water utilities is often low, and infrastructural investment projects in the towns often neglect meaningful capacity development components. Capacity strengthening initiatives are often restricted to one-off training for individual staff members. These can be of limited effectiveness, as the skills are lost when the trained staff moves on. Training’s often lack follow-up mentoring or monitoring, and trainees face challenges to implement their new skills due to a lack of resources in the utility, or a lack of commitment in the utility or town administration to implement new approaches.

To help deal with this problem, WaterAid Ethiopia has been implementing a Yorkshire Water (UK)-funded capacity development project in twenty towns across the country since 2014, and it is due to run until 2019. These towns were selected because they had previously received infrastructure investment from the Government or development partners, but such investments did not include capacity strengthening components. WaterAid’s Twenty Town project takes a holistic, sustained, systems building approach to capacity development. Training is accompanied with the provision of manuals and where necessary equipment. Trainees are required to develop post-training action plans, the implementation of which are reviewed during bi-annual monitoring and mentoring visits to each town. Micro-grants are provided to the towns to undertake post-training initiatives such as customer mobilisation, and there is a strong focus on strengthening not only personal skills, but also the water utilities’ internal processes and systems.

Overall, the capacity development project has made impressive gains in strengthening the efficiency, effectiveness, accountability and sustainability of WASH services in the towns. Infrastructural investments in the 20 towns are of the of GBP 45m, whilst the total WAE capacity development project budget is just GBP 1m. The lessons we learned are that relatively minor investments in capacity development add considerable value to the much large investments being made by others in infrastructure. Moreover, it is important to note that the impacts of the project extend well beyond the twenty towns. Well performing project towns have become ‘model towns’, which other towns in the regions visit to learn from. For example, Debre Tabor, one of the best performing of the twenty towns, has already hosted (self-funded) learning visits from over 160 towns.

This learning note provides an overview of the capacity development, its key achievements, and lessons learned to date and it also captures and presents specific and targeted recommendations.

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